Beating the Depression
The year is 1931, in the heart of the Great Depression. The 1929 Stock Market Crash hit all of North America, including Montréal. One in five workers was unemployed. Within two years, it was one in three. Lines to the city’s soup kitchens got longer and longer.
The mayor of the day, Camillien Houde, sought ways of jump-starting Montréal’s economy. Taking a cue from the U.S. government’s vast public works project, Houde had the city fund construction of overpasses, public baths, chalets and… public toilets.
The mayor decided to kill two birds with one stone—improve public hygiene by giving work to fellow Montrealers.
From Vespasiennes to Camilliennes
The vespasiennes —or public toilets— built in some 20 parks and squares around town in the 1930s soon became known as the “camilliennes,” since the project was associated with the mayor. Their architecture was often inspired by Art Deco, popular for its austerity in this impoverished age.
Donat Beaupré, city architect, created the design for these octagonal public toilets, a few examples of which remain in Carré Saint-Louis and Square Cabot. Beaupré also signed plans for many public baths, park chalets, firehouses and other municipal buildings.
The structure in Carré Saint-Louis is, incidentally, a transplant. First erected in Square Viger, it was relocated to Carré Saint- Louis in 1981, during construction of Autoroute Ville-Marie. Like the structure in Square Cabot, which is now a café, the former toilet of Carré Saint-Louis has become Café de la Maison ronde and is a landmark structure.
After half a century of use, most of the camilliennes were demolished, but a few remain. If you look closely, you can still see the traces of stairs leading to the camilliennes beneath Square Phillips. Be on the lookout for other eye openers on your next stroll through one of Montréal’s parks